Counting books

The following piece also appears on the Special Collections Directory website.

Fellows' Library armchair small

Books in the Fellows’ Library (Nick Cistone; © Jesus College, Oxford)

The guidelines for the new edition of the Directory of Rare Books and Special Collections ask libraries to indicate how many printed books they hold from each century. I didn’t know how the Fellows’ Library measured up but I was keen to find out, so I asked the Oxford University cataloguing team to extract the dates of our books from the SOLO catalogue and set my graduate trainee to explore.

Even allowing for the fifth of the collection which is still to be catalogued, the figures demonstrate that the seventeenth-century Fellows’ Library houses an overwhelmingly seventeenth-century collection. This ties in with our knowledge that the libraries of four Principals of the College, and of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, were presented during the 1600s.

Printing dates for pre-1901 books in the Fellows’ Library (excluding books still to be catalogued)

We also took the opportunity to explore the geographical origins of the books and their languages. Just under half the books are in Latin – more than one visitor has been disappointed to learn that OPERA on the spine merely means works’ – and a third are in English, which is no surprise but useful confirmation. Cataloguing by the Early Printed Books Project prioritised books from continental Europe, so the true proportion of English-language books may be somewhat higher.

Similarly as expected, the overwhelming majority of books were printed in western Europe and Italy. It seemed at first that we owned one book printed in Turkmenistan, but this sadly turned out to be the result of a cataloguing error (the code for Turkmenistan is tk’, which should have been stk’ for Scotland).

Printing places for pre-1901 books in the Fellows’ Library

Printing places for pre-1901 books in the Fellows’ Library (map of current European boundaries from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Summarising the contents of the Fellows’ Library for the forthcoming Directory has been a spur to quantify our implicit knowledge of the collections. We look forward to refining the picture as funding is identified for completing the catalogue. In the meantime, publication of the Directory will allow us to compare and contextualise our holdings with those of other college libraries in Oxford and Cambridge and other institutions of the same era.

Owen McKnight (Librarian)

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